Grey for Pay

Melissa Anderson on Fifty Shades of Grey

Sam Taylor-Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 125 minutes. Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan).

THE STAGGERING POPULARITY of E. L. James’s 2011 erotic novel and BDSM primer, Fifty Shades of Grey, particularly among a certain female demographic, gave rise to the condescending genre tag “mommy porn.” However disdainful the label might be, my own anecdotal experience on various modes of transportation suggests that the book’s most conspicuous readers—those who preferred actual paper products, with emblazoned covers, to anonymity-ensuring Kindles or Nooks—were indeed mothers: On the subway I’ve spotted several moms, their kids next to them and absorbed in their own distractions, lost in James’s prose; on a Paris-bound Eurostar two years ago, I looked up to see a woman, whose husband and two young children were playing cards, turning the pages of Cinquante Nuances de Grey.

The brazen spirit of those readers is entirely absent in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of James’s best seller, whose central couple is twenty-one-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson, charming and sleepy-eyed) and a dom six years her senior, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, an Irishman whose strenuous attempt to effect a flat American voice seems to have left him too tired to wield the flogger with much authority). Yet through her largely sanitized retelling of Anastasia’s deepening thralldom to a billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur with an extensively kitted-out playroom, Taylor-Johnson spares viewers from the source material’s greatest liability: James’s own voice and writing tics, which suggest nothing so much as a non-lubed and nonconsensual fist fuck of the English language. Told from Anastasia’s first-person point of view, the novel bafflingly anthropomorphizes its heroine’s psyche, split into her “inner goddess” (“My inner goddess has her pom-poms in hand—she’s in cheerleading mode”) and “subconscious” (“My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks”); equally appalling are James’s similes (“Anticipation hangs heavy and portentous over my head like a dark tropical storm cloud”).

Taylor-Johnson, the former YBA whose only feature prior to this one is the wan John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy (2009), and screenwriter Kelly Marcel do, however, retain much of the dialogue from the original, such as Christian’s avowal “I don’t make love. I fuck…hard”—the repeated demonstration of which in James’s novel is what made it a publishing phenomenon in the first place. In the film, though, the tech magnate’s boast largely has to be taken on faith: Rapid edits during the sex scenes—whether vanilla or those involving spanking, blindfolds, restraints, etc.—fragment the body, Johnson’s curled toes or agape mouth serving as semaphore for carnal abandon. Further lulled by the movie’s redundant sound track (“I Put a Spell on You,” “Beast of Burden,” and so on), I remained alert by comparing Fifty Shades of Grey with some of its predecessors, R-rated movies that also prominently feature role-playing and/or its virginal protagonist tied spread-eagle to a bed like, to name just two titles from the same decade, Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982) and Adrian Lyne’s 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). If Fifty Shades of Grey the movie has anything to teach us, it’s that today’s MPAA appears to be reverting not just to the Hays Code but to the Old Covenant.

Then again, heterosexual, “transgressively” erotic entertainments from thirty years ago weren’t subject to the demands of brand management and corporate synergy. A visit to invites potential ticket buyers to “share your girls night out plans” (coupled, Valentine’s Day–celebrating spectators have a separate slide on the site); the New York Times recently noted that Target has been selling an official movie tie-in “vibrating love ring.” And so, in the interest of consumer reporting, I’ll say this: The book isn’t better than the movie, and the film isn’t better than the book. Both are inferior to the tableaux I imagined playing out in the heads of my fellow rail passengers as they took in—willingly and avidly, with no safewords needed—James’s more successful sentences.

Fifty Shades of Grey opens February 13.